Consciousness

John Searle's The Rediscovery of the Mind has already been discussed in these pages. Recently, Searle wrote a review in The New York Review of Books [June 9, 2011/Volume LVIII, Number 10] of Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Mind, by Antonio Damasio [Pantheon, 2010]. Searle sympathizes with Damasio's project but does not think that it succeeds. Meanwhile, however, he has said some interesting things about his own views of consciousness.

Nothing is more revealing, for much of recent theory about consciousness, than Searle's own definition:  "consciousness consists of qualitative, subjective states of feeling or sentience or awareness" [p.50]. This exposes a bias and a misconception in the whole project. Searle defines consciousness in terms of its content, the "subjective states of feeling," etc., rather than in terms of its structure. Yet the structure is the essence of the issue.

Consciousness is a private, internal space. Everything in it, all its contents, are subjective simply by virtue of being present therein. A loss of consciousness, whether in deep sleep, anaesthesia, or perhaps in death, means that this internal space disappears, for a limited or perhaps unlimited time -- even Searle stipulates that consciousness is what makes the difference between waking and these states of unconsciousness. The internal space is the existence of the being, the conscious being, who possesses it, and its disapperance threatens personal annihilation.

"Internal space" is an apt characterization because consciousness contains a representation of space -- a representation of external space, which, however, does not physically exist as space in consciousness. Vision clothes the objects of the world with the qualia of light and color and posits a greater or lesser distance between them and the subject; but the qualia, as the phantasmata of perception, exist within the neurological system of, and at no distance from, the subject. The qualia are spontaneously projected in the representation of the external objects.

We can experience this process in the act of happening by employing artificial, stereoscopic images. As these images are initially viewed, there may actually be no stereoscopic effect, as the brain adjusts to the artificial input. Then, in what may be a sudden and miraculous adaptation, the images leap into perspective. I experienced this the most dramatically, not with stereoscopic images of familiar objects, but with cards only containing dots, representing stars, and arranged in such a way that stereoscopic viewing would put the stars in perspective according to their true relative distances from the earth. However, literally for days, my eye and mind were unable to produce the perspective. Crossing and uncrossing, focusing and unfocusing the eyes, moving the card back and forth, in and out, and other such exercises, seemed futile. Then, as I was about to give up in despair, the perspective suddenly and astonishingly appeared. This adaptation had been outside my conscious control, which is significant in its own right, but it also dramatically added that internal depth to the images which was in fact not physically present on the dotted cards. The cards had finally fooled, not just the eye, but the brain.

Brentano and Husserl both viewed the essence of consciousness as intentionality, that it is always consciousness of something. This means that, as I have noted, the contents of consciousness, the qualia of the phenomena of experience, which exist by virtue of the existence of the subject, are spontaneously projected onto objects, which may or may not exist by virtue of the existence of the subject. This projection both reveals and conceals. It reveals the objects, where they are now characterized by the projection; but it also conceals them, behind the contents from the subject. And it also conceals the subject, which as such is emptied of content. Meanwhile, the nature of the qualia is itself concealed, since we cannot inspect that nature as it is qua subject, only in so far as it plays its role in attribution to objects. We may suppose that the qualia correspond to some kind of neurological excitation in the brain, but we cannot examine this as such from the inside.

The emptiness of the subject is a very ancient issue, not in Western philosophy, but in India, where the question of how the Knower, the subject, knows itself as Knower was first asked in the Br.hadâran.yaka Upanis.ad. The subject, when known as such, is free of objects and is strikingly characterized, as in the Mân.d.ûkya Upanis.ad, as the state of Deep Sleep. That the subject is emptied of content by intentionality seems to be something that Husserl and some other Phenomenologists were aware of.

Searle touches on intentionality in his review:

He [Antonio Damasio] tells us that they [retinal images and their neurological effects] are "of" something and that they "represent" things and events outside the brain. But how do they represent? What makes them "of" anything? [p.52]

This is an excellent question. But Searle has put the cart before the horse. We see this earlier when Searle asks,

So our question is: How does the brain create ontological subjectivity? We know consciousness happens and we know the brain does it. How does it work? [p.50]

This is the right question to ask if we know what the brain is and so can sensibly reason from the known to the unknown, from the brain to consciousness. But we do not know what the brain is, especially because, most importantly, we do not know what matter is. I am not sure that Searle is exactly a naive materialist; but I don't think there is any doubt that he is some kind of materialist. We see the presumption in his question that consciousness is caused by the brain and that therefore we begin with a materialist and scientific understanding of the brain and then derive what sort of thing consciousness is expected to be from it. But if we do not know what matter is, or even if matter exists, as an ontological substance, then we certainly do not know enough about the metaphysics of the brain to be so confident that the right question is being asked.

For Damasio, we could easily imagine that the brain "tags" particular contents as "of" something. The images from the senses are processed with a bracket or marker that they are to be understood as referred to external objects. As a matter of processing, this may or may not be sufficient, as when certain files receive certain extensions (".gif," ".exe," ".txt." etc.) in computer programing. But it still does not get us to the private, internal space that is the mystery. With MRI scans we can watch the brain respond to perceptual stimulae; but looking into the brain in corpore, we only see gray goo, not a theatre of light and perception whose existence is that of the sentient subject.

More importantly, we can see exactly what is wrong here epistemologically. We do not have access to matter apart from the phenomenal world that is created by our own intentional consciousness. A couple thousand years after the Upanishads, Western philosophy catches up to the issue with Descartes. Although Descartes has been a target of derision by those desperate to avoid the consequences of his insights, those insights remain a watershed in the history of philosophy that is the equivalent of the Continental Divide in magnitude. As perception is a curtain that conceals the independent nature of objects, we cannot simply part the curtain or look around it to determine independently what is out there. We are locked into our own internal space, and the only reason we think that there is anything outside us at all is because of the intentional nature of our consciousness. One of Descartes' greatest mistakes was to say that "the mind is better known than the body," which made his theory hopelessly vulnerable to solipsism. However, if intentionality empties and conceals the subject even as it conceals, by revealing, the objects, then the subject is not better known than the object, and initially may be even worse known. Solipsism holds no charms (if it ever did) when the self has no epistemological or ontological advantage over the object.

Searle's problem at root is not so much his materialism, but his naive bias for the external. I have elsewhere examined the fallacy of the "externalist" perspective. His talk about the brain creating "ontological subjectivity" means that he is working from the outside, the external, to the inside, the internal. If, however, the external and the internal cannot be derived from each other, because their relationship, intentionality, and its inherent polarity, is foundational to both our knowledge and the phenomenal world, then his project, and that of any other philosopher like him, is hopeless and futile. As long as Searle maintains a commonsense appreciation for the reality of consciousiness, which more reductionistic philosophers, to Searle's own dismay, have rejected, he will never be able to provide a sufficient and satisfactory answer to his "how does the brain create" question but will never be able to avoid the question either.

Considering the progress of neurological science, which in many ways is impressive, Searle derives a confidence that a physical basis of consciousness will become increasingly well understood. However, the confidence is misplaced. Science itself, by its own methods and presumptions, may be incapable of answering the sorts of metaphysical questions that are involved in dealing with the nature of consciousness. If scientific method presupposes ontological materialism, as some even in science appear to think, then it has undermined any chance of addressing the issue properly. If its method is merely naturalistic, which I believe is correct, then it still is hampered either by an externalist bias or by a Pyrrhonian epoché, a suspension of judgment, on metaphysical issues. Neither of these can nor should stop scientists from giving it their best shot; but neither Searle nor the rest of us should be surprised if their results are always unconvincing or irrelevant.

There is an inescapable paradox of the scientific investigation of the brain. The brain, after all, and all its structures is simply a representation in consciousness. Ever since Kant, one of the playgrounds of modern philosophy is to consider the ways in which the subjective conditions of knowledge impose conditions, structures, biases, and limitations on the objects to be known. This is actually part of modern physics now, as quantum mechanics posits physical differences between processes that are observed (particles) and those that are unobserved (waves). This is what Einstein, as a Realist, disliked about the new physics that he himself had helped initiate. But the dualism inherent in the new physics, which led Bohr to become an outright anti-Realist ("nothing exists until it is observed"), presently looks to be unavoidable, despite various efforts to get around it, whether on behalf of the fundamental nature of waves or particles. At the same time, while Kant hewed to an exemplary empirical realism (which allows for a Kantian interpretation of quantum mechanics), the nihilistic, self-referential, and autistic potential of the approach has recently become the most popular in the humanities.

There is another limitation in the scientific study of the brain. Scientific theories are logically suffcient but not necessary conditions of phenomena. This is because science, as finally understood by Karl Popper, works through falsification, not verification. Thus, a theory which has passed the tests of possibly falsifying evidence is not thereby proven true (or necessary). It is only sufficient to the phenomena. This means that it may yet be proven false, as Newtonian physics was after 300 years. It will also mean that, even if true, it may only be a fragment of the truth, in which the reasons for its truth may not be understood.

Thus, Copernicus thought that the earth revolved around the sun; and Galileo found evidence to falsify the Ptolemaic alternative. But none of them had any idea why the earth revolved around the sun until Newton proposed a theory of gravity in which the earth falls around the sun in exactly the same way that a stone falls to earth. Since Newton's theory was one of action at a distance, it was then a mystery how gravity could mediate an interaction between distant objects. Modern physics has two theories of gravity, from Einstein and from quantum mechanics, neither of which is a theory of action at a distance, the former positing a curvature of space-time, the latter an exchange of virtual particles. Which is correct, if either, is an open question.

Similarly, the study of the brain may result in an understanding that is sufficient to the externally observed phenomena, without necessarily providing an explanation for the internally observed phenomenon of consciousness. Indeed, I suspect that it cannot. The internal cannot be deduced from the external any more than external from the internal. Consciousness will always be on the other side of a kind of ontological wall from the brain. Knocking on one side will always appear in some form on the other (although various things can happen in the brain that do not appear in consciousness), but the two will always be distinct and different in kind. Searle's project, or for that matter Damasio's, will always be frustrated. Yet this does not mean there is a dead end to the inquiry. Where science fails, the datum allows metaphysics to pick up the trail. The study of consciousness and its relation to the phenomenal world is properly a metaphysical study.

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